Underwater Photography In Murky Water – Tips and Tricks

Apr 8, 2018

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

Underwater Photography In Murky Water – Tips and Tricks

Apr 8, 2018

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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Woman in bikini diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake Ontario

If you’ve ever tried to photograph a person underwater, you know how important crystal clear water is to producing usable images.

I do most of my underwater photography in Georgian Bay which is exceptionally clean and clear.

It’s also freezing cold, and far away from urban areas – which complicates the logistics required to produce a commercial photography session (it’s a 3 or 4 hour drive for me and most models, stylists, make up artists etc. and there is a window of about two weeks in August when it’s warm enough to swim without a wet suit).

However, I live right beside Lake Ontario (which is not exactly known for being clean or clear), so I thought I’d try an underwater photography session here – with easy access to talent from Toronto.

In this article I will share a few of my tips and tricks for underwater photography in murky water.

Man and woman together diving exploring blue green shallow waters of Lake Ontario

This session was photographed just off the seawall at Spencer Smith Park in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. The water is about six to eight feet deep at the wall and then gradually drops off. The bottom is a mix of large rocks covered with marine growth and course sand.

It was a bright sunny day with a little bit of chop on the lake – but not enough to really stir up much silt.

Spencer Smith Park Underwater Photography Burlington Ontario

Underwater models who can pose and look natural underwater are quite hard to find – underwater modeling is much more difficult than it looks. I was really happy with the poise and grace that models Eva Mok and Vlad Toma brought to this session.

Although I have quite a bit of experience with commercial underwater photography, I had no idea what to expect when we jumped into the lake. This was a new location with a bit of a new approach for me. Despite the challenges, I’m really happy with how the final images turned out – I think that the murky water adds a really cool dreamy feel to the series that would not have been possible to capture any other way.

Man and woman together diving exploring blue green shallow waters of Lake OntarioWoman in bikini diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake OntarioWoman in bikini diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake OntarioWoman in bikini diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake OntarioWoman in bikini diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake OntarioWoman in bikini diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake OntarioWoman in bikini diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake OntarioMan in swimsuit diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake OntarioMan in swimsuit diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake OntarioMan in swimsuit diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake OntarioMan in swimsuit diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake OntarioMan in swimsuit diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake OntarioMan in swimsuit diving exploring shallow blue green waters of Lake Ontario

However there are definitely a few thinks to keep in mind if you want try something similar.

1. Clear water is still important.

While the water that you’re working in doesn’t have to be crystal clear, it still needs to be clearer than you probably think. In this case the lake looked very clear from the surface (not really murky at all), just not at the level of a swimming pool, Georgian Bay or Hawaii.

2. Look for a rocky or gravel bottom.

The type of silt in the water makes a big difference on how it looks in camera. With a rocky or gravel bottom (and sometimes sand) the debris in the water are larger and less noticeable in camera.

Larger debris also tend to settle out quicker, so it’s less critical to avoid touching the bottom or disturbing settled silt when you’re dealing with rocks or gravel.

With a mud or weedy bottom, fine silt and algae suspended in the water column seems to really disrupt light as it travels through the water. I have been in northern lakes that look perfectly crystal clear, but a small amount of suspended fine silt makes underwater photography nearly impossible.

3. Get as close as possible.

I was using an Ikelite underwater camera housing with an 8″ domed port and 16mm Nikon fisheye lens. This allowed me to be as close as possible to my underwater models – nearly touching in most cases. Being even marginally further away (such as with a flat port housing) would have made it impossible for the camera to resolve even the small amount of texture and color information it was capturing underwater.

4. Shoot in sunshine at mid day.

Light drops off very quickly in water – even more so in murky water. You can maximize your chances of capturing usable images if you shoot in very bright conditions (the opposite of most photographer’s approach to photography on land). The added bonus is that sun rays filtering through murky water can add a lot of really interesting texture.

5. Take a lot of underwater photographs!

Even though I was right beside my models I could barely see anything through the underwater camera housing viewfinder. In most cases I was shooting nearly blind, setting up the shot and then more or less simply pointing the camera in the right direction and hitting the shutter release.

The problem is compounded because even in the previews I could barely make out anything except a vague impression of a person.

6. Rehearse your underwater photographs on land.

Unless you’re working in the tropics, you have to remember that your models are not going to be able to stay in the water for more than a few minutes at a time.

Underwater photography is extremely random, so to maximize your chances of capturing the image you want it is important for both the photographer and models to have a clear idea of positioning and timing before you get in the water.

7. Use a red/magenta filter to artificially shift your underwater white balance.

There is a minimal amount of red spectrum light underwater and the problem is compounded when the water isn’t crystal clear. Using a red/magenta filter specifically designed to correct underwater white balance really helps to capture more natural colors and makes post-processing underwater photography much easier.

I use Magic Filters, which are cut to size and fit behind a fisheye lens (on the rear element not the front element).

8. Be prepared to do some heavy post-processing.

All underwater photography needs a significant amount of post processing. This is especially true for sessions where the water is not crystal clear.

I’m always surprised at how some underwater photographs that I thought were throwaways can be carefully processed into an amazing finished image (here is an outline of my typical underwater photography editing process).

Man and woman together diving exploring blue green shallow waters of Lake OntarioMan and woman together diving exploring blue green shallow waters of Lake Ontario

Now Try It Yourself!

Have you tried underwater photography in a situation where the water was a little murky?

How did it turn out? What would you do differently?

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts!

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JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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5 responses to “Underwater Photography In Murky Water – Tips and Tricks”

  1. Steve Seaman Avatar
    Steve Seaman

    In my experience the critical factor in avoiding “backscatter” when working in water with suspended particulates is to separate the light source from the camera. The wider the separation, the less light is reflected from the particulates. Ideally your buddy handles the light source, or failing that, use the longest possible extension arm. This will make a considerable difference to the end product.

  2. Brett Avatar
    Brett

    Would you still use the red filter when shooting RAW? White balance is not baked in so would the filter really make any difference?

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      I personally find it very helpful – think of it like starting your edits with a photo that looks 75% ok vs 5% ok. That and underwater white balance isn’t a simple RAW temp/tint slider adjustment – depending on depth, water quality and distances to subject and background, there are entire portions of the red spectrum that are barely there – or non-existent, which have to be individually adjusted. So the closer you are to decent colors in camera the better.

      1. Brett Avatar
        Brett

        Yes but depending on your depth you need to adjust the level of red that is added, which you can’t do once the camera is in its housing, so you’re really just adding extra red to everything which in just skews your base right? It’s just like changing the tint/temp I’d say.

  3. jk25 Avatar
    jk25

    I actually find that shooting mid day is the worst in lakes, and you get amazing images, especially in lakes with clay bottoms, close to sunset or in the “blue” hour.